Art, Sex and Isherwood

Christopher and His Kind: 1929-1939

by Christopher Isherwood
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 339 pp., $10.00

Christopher Isherwood
Christopher Isherwood; drawing by David Levine

In 1954 I had lunch with Christopher Isherwood at MGM. He told me that he had just written a film for Lana Turner. The subject? Diane de Poitiers. When I laughed, he shook his head. “Lana can do it,” he said grimly. Later, as we walked about the lot and I told him that I hoped to get a job as a writer at the studio since I could no longer live on my royalties as a novelist (and would not teach), Christopher gave me as melancholy a look as those bright—even harsh—blue eyes can affect. “Don’t,” he said with great intensity, posing against the train beneath whose wheels Greta Garbo as Anna Karenina made her last dive, “become a hack like me.” But we both knew that this was play-acting. Like his friend Aldous Huxley (like William Faulkner and many others), he has been able to write to order for movies while never ceasing to do his own work in his own way. Those whom Hollywood destroyed were never worth saving. Not only has Isherwood written successfully for the camera, he has been, notoriously, in his true art, the camera.

“I am a camera.” With those four words at the beginning of the novel Goodbye to Berlin (1939), Christopher Isherwood became famous. Because of those four words he has been written of (and sometimes written off) as a naturalistic writer, a recorder of surfaces, a film director manqué. Although it is true that, up to a point, Isherwood often appears to be recording perhaps too impartially the lights, the shadows, the lions that come within the area of his vision, he is never without surprises; in the course of what looks to be an undemanding narrative, the author will suddenly produce a Polaroid shot of the reader reading, an alarming effect achieved by the sly use of the second person pronoun. You never know quite where you stand in relation to an Isherwood work.

During the half century that Christopher Isherwood has been more or less at the center of Anglo-American literature, he has been much scrutinized by friends, acquaintances, purveyors of book-chat. As memoirs of the Twenties, Thirties, Forties now accumulate, Isherwood keeps cropping up as a principal figure, and if he does not always seem in character, it is because he is not an easy character to fix upon the page. Also, he has so beautifully invented himself in the Berlin stories, Lions and Shadows, Down There on a Visit, and now Christopher and His Kind, that anyone who wants to snap yet again this lion’s shadow has his work cut out for him. After all, nothing is harder to reflect than a mirror.

To date the best developed portrait of Isherwood occurs in Stephen Spender’s autobiography World Within World (1951). Like Isherwood, Spender was a part of that upper-middle-class generation which came of age just after the…

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